French Open 2011: Old Master Roger Federer Sculpts a Masterpiece in Clay

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French Open 2011: Old Master Roger Federer Sculpts a Masterpiece in Clay
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Finally, the championship takes off! And for those who like sport at it's most gladiatorial, the men's semifinal between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic was a thrilling spectacle in a week where the twin spectres of politics and corruption have stalked the sports world.

Federer, the aging monarch of tennis, put down the young pretender Novak Djokovic in a scintillating display that transfixed the crowd at Roland Garros. Written off by many during an indifferent season, the Swiss gave a fascinating insight into the psyche of a true champion, he raged against the apparent dying of the light and re-established himself at the pinnacle of his sport.

While not as epic as the "Rumble in the Jungle" between Ali and Foreman, this was an absorbing tussle between two supreme sportsmen. Federer, reliant on his experience, wisdom and guile to seek out and take the opportunities to hit winners, particularly on his majestic backhand, looked assured, certain of his place in the world, regal. Especially in the opening two sets where he contained the power of Djokovic and repelled with razor sharp precision. 

Djokovic was, by contrast, full of youthful fire, vitality, raw power and ambition. Virile and keen, his confidence boosted by his exceptional run of victories, he had tasted victory but was not sated by it, rather it had instilled in him the desire to feast once more at the top table. Willing and able to take on the  master of the game, the crowd, even the world!

He battered forehand and back hand shots back at his opponent, refusing to concede, even when the first two sets were lost that this was not his moment.

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
The third set was particularly engrossing. Countless players through the years have surrendered meekly when two sets down to Federer. Indeed the Djokovic of a year ago may well have done the same, but Serb continued to be bold, brave and uninhibited. Again and again, the missiles rained down on Federer and the tide appeared to turn, a prized break on Federer's serve, back hand winners down the line, the first seeds of doubt planted in the older man's mind. The third set was Djokovic's, and now he sensed the initiative was with him.

It says much for the young Serb that there were no histrionics during Fedrer's early ascendancy. No petulant outbursts, no disputes with the officials, and he duly got his reward with a route back into the match.

It says even more about Federer that he refused to panic in a fourth set that swung one way and then the other. Federer held his nerve even when he could not hold his serve in the ninth game and broke back to deny Djokovic when he was serving for the fourth set, forcing the tiebreak from which he emerged victorious.

The loss of that third set did not diminish Federer's achievement , indeed it enhanced it , for he showed resilience,strength of character and belief against a worthy opponent. I felt sorry for Djokovic, I think he deserved to win the fourth and I would have relished a titanic fifth set, but Federer was serene in the eye of the storm,imperiously striding towards the final with old adversary Rafael Nadal.

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
The way the players embraced at the end  encapsulated the spirit in which the whole game was played. No triumphalism from Federer but realisation that he had been severely tested by a great player and his victory was all the more valued because of the superb contribution by Djokovic. 

No tantrum from Djokovic, just acceptance that, well though he had played, on this day there was someone better. Someone to admire, respect and attempt to emulate.

This is why we love sport, away from the men in suits, the politics, the shady back room deals, this was sport in the raw, two protagonists, straining ever fibre of their being in search of greatness and immortality but having the nobility and dignity to treat triumph and disaster, those two impostors, just the same.

In a bad week, sport was the real victor at Roland Garros yesterday.

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